Proposal: Two Years of Free College for All

A recent paper by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall suggests the actual policy goals of federal financial aid might be better met by redirecting it away from private institutions and toward support of two years of free education at state institutions. 

The authors argue (among other things) that private institutions are subsidized but actively resist accountability measures to which public institutions are subject and even with current subsidies the privates enroll a very small portion of low resource students (be sure to read pp 24ff). 

It is a provocative plan by smart scholars of higher education; ideas like this should engage us both for their social justice implications and for their implications to our institutions’ financial models.

Executive Summary

For almost fifty years, the federal government has tried to make the American Dream universally accessible by using need-based financial aid to lower the price of attending college. The effectiveness of this approach to expanding opportunity and investing in America’s future has diminished because of declines in real family income, increases in demand for college enrollment, poor regulation of state funding and institutional costs, insufficient funding for and targeting of grant aid, and a political movement that places the needs of private businesses and banks over those of students and families. The results have undermined the national ideal of equal opportunity to succeed and equal rewards for hard work. Talented students are forgoing college because of the costs, students who start college are unable to complete because they cannot afford to continue, and even students who finish degrees may not realize all of the expected returns because of sizable debt burdens. All but the wealthiest families must borrow or pay an amount equal to or exceeding one-quarter of their annual income in order to finance attending a public 4-year college or university.
Fortunately, financial aid is not the only way to make college affordable. We argue that it is time for the federal government to partner with states, public colleges and universities, and localities and businesses to offer two years of college for free. This paper outlines a Free Two Year College Option (F2CO) that can be funded with existing resources, developed to overcome the problems in previous efforts to make college more affordable, and designed to ensure that wider access occurs without reductions in educational quality. The effort begins with a simple message to every American interested in pursuing education after high school: If you complete a high school degree, you can obtain a 13th and 14th year of education for free in exchange for a modest amount of work while attending school. Key aspects of the F2CO plan include:
  • All eligible students can attend any public college or university (2-year or 4-year) for free for the first two years
  • Through a redirection of current federal financial aid funding, the federal government pays tuition for all students, and provides additional performance-based top-up funding for institutions that serve low-income students. We estimate that per-student funding will be higher than the average tuition currently charged by community colleges, and only slightly lower than the average tuition charged by four-year colleges
  • Participating institutions cannot charge tuition or additional fees to students
  • State funding for higher education will be redirected to cover books and supplies for all students
  • Student living expenses will be covered through a state and local stipend equal to fifteen hours a week of living wage employment in the area, federal work-study in an amount equal to fifteen hours a week of living wage employment in the area, and access to federal loans equaling up to five hours a week of living wage employment in the area
We believe that such a policy is long overdue, and will significantly expand the quality, efficiency, and effectiveness of our collective investments in postsecondary education and in a shared and secure future.

PDFs are not Accessible! Oh No! Convert Everything!

Alarm bells went off recently at my institution when some colleagues reported that they’d heard that “PDFs are not accessible” and that all of our electronic reserve materials would need to be converted into an accessible format and that while the library would help, its staff did not have the time to do all that would need to be done.  And so, as is often the case, the task would fall on individual instructors who, apparently, do have the time.

We could discuss the bad economics of shifting a task from those who are trained in a skill and cost less to those who are not trained and cost more.  Or we could question the quality control consequences of having 150 different people carry out a task unsupervised.  But instead, we can try to make some headway on a sketch of how a small institution might proceed…

  • A clarification, from a “non-partisan” perspective, about what the legal and regulatory situation actually is.  We need to get clear on the “what we must do” and “what we should do” and “what we can do”
  • Some background on what “accessible instructional material” means.  We’ve learned a bit already about universal design – where does this issue fit in with that? 
  • Develop shared sense of how we have dealt with AIM issues heretofore.
  • Some facts on size of e-reserves as currently used, proportion that are problematic, etc.
  • Learn about issues in the PDF/Ebook area.
  • Perhaps develop a short tutorial on ebooks and ebook formats?
  • Develop a cost/benefit based strategy for achieving AIM goals we set. What should we do first?

… and then get to work learning something.

    Background on Law and Policy

    1. Background material at the National Center for Accessible Instructional Materials (AIM)
    2. The Advisory Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Post-Secondary Education for Students with Disabilities
    Recommendation#12:Faculty/Staff Awareness and Capacity-Building (report p 79The Commission recommends that federally sponsored projects and programs encourage and support systematic faculty and staff professional development with respect to selection, production and delivery of high-quality AIM to meet the needs of students with disabilities in postsecondary settings.

    Federally sponsored … grants… and contracts that involve … creation of materials that could be used for postsecondary instruction need to support accessibility. … encourages … institutions to …utilize Section 508 procurement and purchasing guidelines in their digital product development ….

    Higher education institutions, consistent with the requirements of the ADA and Section 504, should purchase authoring tools for use by faculty, staff and students in working with accessible digital publications. In addition, every postsecondary institution should offer a mandatory system-wide orientation for faculty, staff, teaching assistants and administrators concerning strategies for ensuring accessibility in all aspects of the education enterprise, including readings, courseware and instructional technology, assessments and instructor-made materials. ….

    Ebooks and Accessibility

    1. Accessibility of eBooks @ Britain’s Royal National Institute of Blind People
    2. Wikipedia Comparison of e-book formats

    “PDFs are Not Accessible” is Not Quite Accurate

    PDFs come in at least three flavors.  One is simply a scan (image) of a text page.  It is a “raster” image – dots on the page that our eyes see as letters but that mean nothing to the computer.  A second version has these images optically recognized and the document has a sort of “text in the background.”  The text is more or less accurate depending on the quality of the image.  The third kind is a pdf that is produced FROM a text document (as when you save a Word document as a pdf).  This file contains the full text of the original and can contain meta-information as well.
    You can recognize either flavor 2 or 3 when you view the document in Adobe Acrobat and you can use your mouse to select and copy text.
    Documents of flavor 2 and 3 can be made accessible through various means.  The task can range from simple to tedious.  Below are some sources of information on the options.
    1. How to Make Accessible Adobe PDF Documents: A Guide for Document Authors
    2. Creating Accessible PDFs
    3. Ohio State University.  Creating Accessible PDF from Scanned Documents
    4. How to Geek.  How to Convert PDF Files for Easy Ebook Reading describes free software called Calibre
    5. Cal State Sacramento.  How to Create Accessible PDFs Using Adobe Acrobat
    6. Adobe® Acrobat® 9 Pro Accessibility Guide: Creating Accessible Forms
    7. Making Forms Accessible